January 24th, 2007

What Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power?

by

Wikipedia is starting to feel awfully Google-like in the amount of power it wields online. If you publish any original information or insight, and it gets incorporated into Wikipedia, even if you are properly cited in Wikipedia, based on the new “no follow” policy for such external links, Wikipedia will likely rank much higher than you in search engines for that information and be the destination for most searchers (Nick Carr rounds up some of the best responses to this issue).

And, it now appears that if you are a corporation that feels Wikipedia is inaccurate or slanted on a topic that is of substantive importance to your business, you’re pretty much screwed. If your employees try to change the information directly, you’ll get slapped — perhaps not technically, but it’s clear that companies are not exactly welcomed with open arms in the discussion areas of articles. And if, like Microsoft, you try to engage an independent expert to make changes — completely independent and without your review — you’ll also get slapped.

That’s a lot of power for an organization that purports to be a collaborative product of its users. And there are a lot of problems with how that power is being wielded. Here are the details of the Microsoft incident:

Doug Mahugh, a technical expert for the Microsoft format, Office Open XML, has identified himself as the Microsoft employee who contacted Jelliffe requesting his services.

In a comment posted on the popular Slashdot technology website, Mahugh published what he said was an excerpt from an email to Jelliffe, detailing “what I asked Rick to do”.

“Wikipedia has an entry on Open XML that has a lot of slanted language, and we’d like for them to make it more objective but we feel that it would be best if a non-Microsoft person were the source of any corrections,” reads the email Mahugh apparently wrote to Jelliffe.

“Would you have any interest or availability to do some of this kind of work? Your reputation as a leading voice in the XML community would carry a lot of credibility, so your name came up in a discussion of the Wikipedia situation today.”

The email also encouraged Jelliffe to disclose his deal with Microsoft in his blog at oreillynet.com, and reassured Jelliffe that Microsoft did not have to approve any of his Wikipedia edits before they were made.

Microsoft APPEARS to have aimed at transparency, but that wasn’t good enough for Wikipedia’s power center, founder Jimmy Wales:

We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach.

Mike Arrington sums up the conventional wisdom:

It’s clear that the only way to safely clear the record on Wikipedia when you are involved party is in the discussion area of a page. Paying others to make direct changes isn’t smart, even if you tell them they are free to write their unbiased opinions (as happened in this case). And making direct changes yourself is likely to get you in hot water, too.

Tony Hung, whose opinions I respect a lot, characterizes Microsoft’s efforts as an “astroturfing blunder.” But isn’t astroturfing about trying to insert biased or slanted information? Has anyone demonstrated that this was in fact Microsoft’s intentioned? Did they really think Rick Jelliffe was going to “shill” for them and compromise his reputation by putting in something other than his expert opinion? Is it even conceivable that there was a legitimate problem with the entries in question and that Microsoft thought they would just get smacked if they tried to address it in the discussion area?

For me, I immediately felt a connection between this Microsoft incident and the “no follow” policy. It’s easy to pile on Microsoft, but it seems that it’s getting increasingly difficult to for an individual or company to manage the impact of Wikipedia — Wikipedia is becoming as manageable as Google, which is to say that there are some things you can do, but an awful lot is out of your control.

Isn’t it funny how, on our marvelously “open” web, everything always comes back to issues of control?

Comments (33 Responses so far)

  1. What Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power?

  2. Google-like in its influence over information on the Web and still sometimes suffering from its opacity, maybe it’s time for a different approach. That’s what Larry Sanger wants to do. An early editor of Wikipedia, before having a falling out with Jimmy Wales, he

  3. I’m confident you’ll find — over time — that policing the content, rather than the contributors, makes a lot more sense. Good luck. I’m rooting for you. Sincerely, Scott P.S. — here are some other points of view on the Microsoft thing: What Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power? Wikipedia Watchdogs Need Their Own Doghouse Why Microsoft PR got accused of cutting up the Bible Battleground Wikipedia When Wikipedia Gets It Wrong Microsoft: If You’re Going to Game Wikipedia, Do It Right

  4. about their company? Clearly a tech-heavy subject like XML has innumerable editors that will keep any Microsoft alterations in check. For that matter, why are edits to Microsoft’s information by a Microsoft employee really so improper? As Scott Karp writes, “And, it now appears that if you are a corporation that feels Wikipedia is inaccurate or slanted on a topic that is of substantive importance to your business, you’re pretty much screwed. If your employees try to change the information

  5. Scott Karp / Publishing 2.0: What Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power?

  6. What Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power?

  7. with Wikipedia over the entry on its XML file formats. The procedure by which people try to change entries that involve them is surprisingly close to that used by traditional publishers, whether of newspapers or encyclopedias. That is, it would be if the publisher

  8. Bureaucracies aren’t made, they just kind of appear One thing struck me about Microsoft’s wrangling with Wikipedia over the entry on its XML file formats. The procedure by which people try to change entries that involve them is surprisingly close to that used by traditional publishers, whether of newspapers or encyclopedias. That is, it would be if the publisher

  9. Aanbevolen leesvoer “This Video Is Brought To You By…”The Bite-Size Web(Gratis) Boek over UGC of CCCA Second to Talk About Second LifeBMW New World verkent Second LifeCommunity-generated Documentation SurveyWhat Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power?Against widgetsSome Bling for Your BlogIs News A Fundamentally Shared, Social Experience?

  10. Payment would not be an option, but I am sympathetic to their situation.  I get paid for what I do.  I am also upfront about whom I represent.  I don’t want my compensation to get in the way of a fair hearing.  As Scott Karp points out on Publishing 2.0, Wikipedia wields a lot of power.  In the mainstream media, companies unhappy with their portrayal in an article would not be denied a forum or an opportunity for inclusion just because they represent a particular point of view.

  11. . It has been widely claimed that the move will improve Wikipedia’s search rankings at the expense of the originators of the ideas that actually make up “the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit”. The Wikipedians drew more heat earlier in the week for their reaction to Microsoft’s (open and transparent) attempt to encourage an independent expert to rectify the worse errors in the “open document format” page. The debate has been made an issue of power and control – a rod

  12. piece from Joe Lewis that the blogosphere uproar over Microsoft trying to pay a writer in order to get a more Microsoft-friendly spin on a Wikipedia entry is not that big of a deal when the facts are looked at objectively. (www.webpronews.com) 6. What is the Check on Wikipedia’s Power? – January 24, 2007 opinion piece by Scott Karp on the catch-22 companies may find themselves in when it comes to their reputation on Wikipedia—Wikipedia etiquette says you don’t edit entries about you or your company, yet if the entries are written

  13. [IMG Citizendium]With Wikipedia becoming more Google-like in its influence over information on the Web and still sometimes suffering from its opacity, maybe it’s time for a different approach. That’s what Larry Sanger wants to do. An early editor of Wikipedia, before having a falling out with Jimmy Wales, he

  14. about their company? Clearly a tech-heavy subject like XML has innumerable editors that will keep any Microsoft alterations in check. For that matter, why are edits to Microsoft’s information by a Microsoft employee really so improper? As Scott Karp writes, “And, it now appears that if you are a corporation that feels Wikipedia is inaccurate or slanted on a topic that is of substantive importance to your business, you’re pretty much screwed. If your employees try to change the information

  15. I hope you “no followed” that link to Wikipedia, Scott.

    They get all their power from *our* links, so turnabout is fair play.

  16. [...] Karp – “What is the check on Wikipedia’s power?“ “It now appears that if you are a corporation that feels Wikipedia is inaccurate or [...]

  17. Recently, I inquired about making an edit to some factually incorrect information on my company’s wikipedia entry. We want to do it the right way from the get-go, so I first turned to wikipedia for answers. There is no simple “how to go about making a correction” page. Yes, anyone can edit a page by clicking the Edit button, but I think we all know the furious maelstrom that will arise when (not if) one of the Wikipedians catches wind of the edit-job.

    I did find this page, but I found other pages that contradicted the information contained here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:COI

    So I went to Ask Metafilter to ask for any specific experiences people had with making edits. The link below goes to the Ask Metafilter page, but I can summarize in two words: Forget it. Even if you want to do it the right way to correct incorrect information (not PR whitewash), you’re walking into a mindfield.

    http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/54026

  18. Scott, I must admit I don’t see Wikipedia’s approach as being a huge deal. While it’s true that Doug Mahugh seems to have had the best of intentions, he still tried to get around the process by paying someone to edit a Wikipedia entry — and I don’t think “but I meant well” is really an effective defence in a case like that. There may be problems with Wikipedia and gate-keeping, but if you want to debate the way an article is presented there are ways of doing so that don’t involve astroturfing.

  19. Mathew, my friend, your comment is rife with assumptions.

    he still tried to get around the process

    I’ve seen nothing that would instill any confidence in any corporate entity that there is a “process” that would treat them fairly, i.e. you’re assuming that Microsoft went around a perfectly good and fair process. Just look at Michael Rubin’s comment above yours for evidence to the contrary.

    there are ways of doing so that don’t involve astroturfing

    According to the Wikipedia definition of “astroturfing,” you need to be deceptive in your approach, and Microsoft specifically did NOT ask Jelliffe to hide the ball. I think the “astroturf” label is becoming a bit of a red herring.

    All in all, I think it’s a LOT more complicated than you and others are making it out to be.

  20. I’m not saying the Wikipedia process is completely without flaws, and it is definitely subject to all the interpersonal cruft that other “social media” involve, but there is a process for changing an entry — and Michael Rubin’s comment contains no persuasive evidence to the contrary, nor does the Metafilter page he links to.

    Factual edits can be made if evidence is presented, and the discussion pages are the place to debate whether something needs to be changed. Paying people to change things is just no way to run something that is (allegedly) supposed to be an unbiased resource, whatever Mr. Mahugh’s intentions were.

    As for astro-turfing, I will bow to Wikipedia on that one — I thought the term referred to any attempt to generate “fake” grassroots support for something.

  21. [...] Nevertheless, Microsoft has been painted as offering bribes to get its views into Wikipedia. Scott Karp and John Paczkowski deftly put the story into [...]

  22. Mathew,

    I’m not saying the Wikipedia process is completely without flaws

    But that is PRECISELY the issue. It’s easy to write off what Mahugh did as “stupid” or “foolish” or “not getting it” or “acting irrationally,” but I think the reality is more likely that his actions were a response to processes that are in fact BROKEN.

    Most people don’t act with malicious intent — they make the best judgment they can under the circumstances. If Mahugh made the wrong judgment, the question is why? Again, I’m guessing it’s not because he’s some devious corporate type that we’d all love to demonize.

  23. Just to be clear, I didn’t say he was stupid, or didn’t get it, or was acting irrationally. I think he may have been acting completely rationally — and thought what he was doing was the right thing. That’s irrelevant. The fact is that he tried to get someone to detour around the process for changing an entry, and he was going to *pay him to do so.*

    I find it interesting that everyone — you included, Scott — gets upset at the idea of PayPerPost paying bloggers for their opinion (positive or negative) but paying someone to change a Wikipedia entry is somehow justified because Wikipedia is “broken.”

  24. I think he may have been acting completely rationally — and thought what he was doing was the right thing. That’s irrelevant.

    No, that’s entirely relevant — if the official process can really enable a corproate entity like Microsoft to achieve its legitimate objectives, then his circumventing the process would have be entirely IRRATIONAL.

    paying someone to change a Wikipedia entry is somehow justified because Wikipedia is “broken.”

    No, the core issue is whether Wikipedia is, in fact, broken. I think it is.

    And on PayPerPost — not even close. PPP allows advertisers to REQUIRE a positive post, have approval over the post, AND it does NOT require disclosure. Microsoft did not require anything specific of Jelliffe other than that he use his professional judgment, they did not ask him for approval, AND they asked him to disclose everything on his blog!

  25. Oh, and Mathew

    Just to be clear, I didn’t say he was stupid


    Oh really?

  26. [...] Karp of Publishing 2.0 thinks that Wikipedia is too powerful (and Rex Hammock seems to agree), and that the Microsoft employee was justified in doing what he [...]

  27. I didn’t say Mahugh was stupid — the point of my post was that Microsoft looks stupid as a result of what he did.

  28. Mathew,

    “Stupid is as stupid does.”

  29. [...] blogged about editing your own Wikipedia entry, and this week Wikipedia is being discussed all over the geekosphere following Microsoft’s attempt to pay someone to edit an entry about Office [...]

  30. Damn you, Karp :-)

  31. Anon for this one

    Anyone who thinks that Microsoft is either the first or the last company to recruit someone to fix their Wikipedia entry for them is smoking something.

    The company I work for had a relatively short and not very helpful Wikipedia entry. Our competitors have much longer, more detailed, and generally much better entries about themselves. I’ve wanted to fix our entry for a long time, but according to Wikipedia, I can’t. I have to sit on my hands and wait for one of our customers to decide to commit the hours to such a project — and let’s not kid ourselves, creating a good Wikipedia entry about a technical subject is not a small project.

    Yet if I try to facilitate matters, then I’m bad and should be roundly criticized. I call bull. That’s only true if you subscribe to the theory that anything a corporation does is inherently tainted and untrustworthy. The world just isn’t that black and white. Companies with a legitimate interest in providing accurate information about their products should be able to do so without either sneaking around or going over hurdles that their competitors don’t have.

  32. I keep thinking that all PR is good PR. Yes it was a PR black eye, but Microsoft made its point.

    Yes the rules are changing. Microsoft and any company for that matter have a real challenge on their hands when it comes to influencing the debate and defending themselves on Wikipedia or the world of new media. Where the goal is transparency, openness and honesty, payment is frowned upon, even if you are transparent, open and honest about the point of you view you represent.

    It means companies will need to work doubly hard to gain acknowledgment and acceptance of their point of view.

  33. [...] blogged about editing your own Wikipedia entry, and this week Wikipedia is being discussed all over the geekosphere following Microsoft’s attempt to pay someone to edit an entry about Office [...]

  34. [...] lately. Steven Colbert summarized it in a bit on “wikilobbying” (via SEOmoz). Someone at Microsoft offers to pay an expert to fix an entry, and the whole world hears about it. Wikipedia adopts the “nofollow” [...]

  35. [...] Scott Karp has a very interesting take on this. [...]

Add Your Comment

Subscribe

Receive new posts by email